It was a bit of controversy when the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) acquired two turbo-prop aircraft in 2008 for the purpose of calibrating flight guidance systems at its airports.
But the controversy died pretty soon as it had more to do with distrust over a government agency’s expenditure than anything more sinister.
The new Beechcraft King Air B-200s, along with calibration devices, were acquired at a cost of around $15 million.
The US-made aircraft were installed by the Automatic Flight Inspection System, which was bought from German avionics maker Aerodata.
Since the 1960s, as advancement in avionics allowed pilots to use electronic navigational and landing guides, there has been a need to check the corresponding equipment installed on the ground.
As the CAA constructed airports and demand for air travel grew, a dedicated calibration department was established with pilots and support staff.
Over the years, various turbo-props flew for thousands of hours to ensure that instruments guiding flights in Pakistani airspace were in order.
Calibration is also required under aviation regulations. For instance, the Instrument Landing System must be checked every 90 to 120 days. Similarly, Very High Omni Range device is calibrated every six months. The aircraft are also used to check the Precision Approach Path Indicator lights, which are installed along the runway.
When it comes to aviation, Pakistan’s CAA is still better off than many of its regional peers. That is why for three decades it has been exporting services to calibrate navigational systems in countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sri Lanka, UAE, Bangladesh and Vietnam.
While the CAA doesn’t share details of its earnings from the calibration service, officials point out that it was enough to recover the $15 million cost of the aircraft in six years between fiscal years 2009 and 2015.
But over the past year, all the CAA contracts with other countries expired. People of the department that were once pride of the regulator were no longer needed. Planes were almost grounded.
Then on September 13, out of nowhere, the CAA announced it is launching a charter service. The advertisement titled “When you fly for big business, fly beyond business class” went on to say that flights could be taken to foreign destinations as well.
It also said that Beechcraft aircraft will be used to operate these charter flights.
The only off-the-record reason that has so far been shared for the decision is that it will help the CAA earn some extra cash. However, the initiative is bound to make the few charter flight operators bankrupt which are still operational, officials say.
“This kind of interference by a regulator in market is unprecedented. It’s like State Bank of Pakistan saying it would have its own commercial bank,” said an official from the private sector, who was too scared to come on record.
Pakistan has, so far, issued over two dozen licences to charter flight operators but just three of them are actually operational.
“It would take a few more years for businessmen and well-to-do people to accept the idea of travelling on charter flights,” noted the industry people.
The service is mostly used by petroleum engineers travelling to distant oil and gas fields.
For the past couple of years, an upsurge in demand comes during the build-up to national elections as politicians charter planes to address public gatherings in multiple cities on a day.
The CAA’s decision to enter charter service has not only caused concern among private operators but has also left many wondering about the purpose of new aviation policy, which is all about increasing participation of the private sector.
Despite repeated attempts, CAA Deputy Director General Manzar Jamal did not respond to requests for comments.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 22nd, 2015.